Esclarmonde d’Alion

My dream of a Provencal scholar made me think of this, which I have managed to ignore for a number of years. Or perhaps the word is “scuttle away from.” It is something that matters to me because I am insane, and you have to be sane to make a living; both are very hard work and I fake it the best I can.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries along the Southern territories of Europe there was a great infatuation with what has sometimes been called Dualism, implying a belief in two equal and feuding powers of Good and Evil, under the rubric of Catharism or Waldensianism or Bogomil, depending on your location. Actually it is a bit more nuanced than that, as the Cathar Christians rejected the overt God vs. Satan conflict and, as best we can understand it, believed the world we live in to be the creation of an egotistical lesser deity with a narcissistic personality disorder. (William Blake called him “Old Nobodaddy.”) There is a bit of a Buddhist riff in there and perhaps some eastern-wandering Buddhist missionaries affected the Cathar outlook. It is really hard to know what the Cathars thought because, having decided that the Pope of Rome was simply a representative of an NPD demiurge and spurning the various sacraments and other Catholic rackets, the Cathars, or Albigenses, were put to fire and sword and their lands seized, lest the whole Papal empire be undermined by people who refused to believe they needed absolution from Roman priests or Church marriages. (Pretty much everyone has heard of the Spanish Inquisition but fewer people realize that the original Inquisition was invented in reaction to the Cathar heresy.)

Assorted soldiers of fortune, some of English extraction in the fine old Briton tradition of Fucking With The Frogs, assisted the Papal movement to stomp the heretics into the ground. Joan of Arc, my first amazon hero, hailed from a part of France that had been suffused with Catharism only a handful of decades before. Troubadours and the whole vaguely profane yet Tantric tradition of Courtly Love were invented there. Centuries later the same districts, contrarian still, formed the backbone of the French Resistance in World War II.

Catharism has become sexy since the 1980s when I originally read about it. These days people tromp through Carcassonne and probably up every trail near Montsegur where the Albigeois made their last stand.  I have been thoroughly creeped out, albeit fascinated, by assertions that the mystical underpinnings of Nazism can be traced directly to Gnostic Catharism. The Cathars were not around to repudiate their sponsorship on that occasion though the Catholic Church, which spent most of the time looking the other way, probably appreciated having someone else to take the rap.

Tradition has it that the first time anyone said “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” was during the Albigensian Crusade.

So far as I can grasp it, the Cathars were pretty good Buddhists, refusing to eat animals (other than, oddly, fish) and insisting that the world, and worldly power, were illusory. Arthur Guirdham, an M.D. shrink for the British National Health, maintained that he had retrieved group memories of past incarnations as Cathari in a cluster of his patients and himself, and asserted that they practiced healing by the laying on of hands (in imitation of the Apostles). As a vegetarian massage therapist I feel rather at home, assuming Guirdham wasn’t merely barking mad. And then there’s Esclarmonde d’Alion.

She just pops up here and there in the stories. Esclarmonde seems to have been a popular name — one of the most prominent Cathars was Esclarmonde Countess of Foix, who debated some papal legates to a standstill at one point — but d’Alion was supposed to have been “a bastard” and a military adventurer of uncertain morals, who spent her adult years campaigning against the Papal and English invaders. Reputedly a redhead. I like that.

Seven or eight hundred years later we still live in a world where people murder each other over the question of who has the real Imaginary Friend(s).

I tried to jam all this into the backstory of a historical novel about World War II, back in the day. It collapsed under its own weight, but now and then I wonder if there’s life in it.

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10 thoughts on “Esclarmonde d’Alion

  1. Sir Steven Runciman’s “The Medieval Manichee” is a good place to learn about Christian dualism during the Middle Ages. His work will give one a solid understanding of the different groups, their ways of life and practices, and what became of them. I found the sections on the Bogomils especially useful in my studies.

    • He is on my wish list. I’ve got works by Oldenbourg, Fernand Niel and LeRoy Ladurie on the shelf, and spent a year poking around the Library of Congress. At one point I plowed through Saint-Loup’s romance “Nouveaux Cathares pour Montsegur,” which I don’t think has ever been translated, just to make sure I wasn’t going to do something that had already been done. But its World War II-era drama was more involved with the French Resistance than the story I had in mind, and depicted the SS’s Cathar scholar Otto Rahn, who I believe was not heterosexual, as smitten with a young Frenchwoman who later joined the Maquis. I don’t believe in smitten men under any conditions so I figured I wasn’t at risk of overlapping material.

  2. I reckon that back story has got legs – fascinating.

    I loved that thing, probably Monty Python I can’t quite remember – “The trouble with the Spanish Inquisition was they were so ……………….. inquisitive.”

  3. Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose” novel gives a very good look at the Cathars and the mores of their time as of the workings, or lack thereof, of the Church.
    They were tough times and no holds were barred. We have not much evolved since then.

    • I did my absolute best to slog through that. It was one of those books where everything about it seems poised to grip your imagination, except it doesn’t, at least in my case. After 20 years I probably ought to give it another chance.

      • It is difficult to read, so many descriptions, listings and so forth. But from an historical and epoch reconstruction it is wonderfull. My son gave it to me at Christmas. The History maniac that I am enjoyed it greatly but found it tough work. Good thing that I remembered enough Latin to be able to wade through those Latin passages.

        • Not least, I was attracted to the “William of Baskerville” nod to Sherlock Holmes, who is close to being my dream man. If only I hadn’t felt out of breath before a few chapters were behind me, from my sense that the author was Making A Point.

  4. “Seven or eight hundred years later we still live in a world where people murder each other over the question of who has the real Imaginary Friend(s).”

    Have never understood that one…

  5. “Kill them all. God will know His own.” Or to that effect. Even that may be a myth but no matter. There’s certainly a novel or three in and among the mysterious threads that tie together history. The real reason you haven’t written it is … ?

    Well, MY real reason is too much weighty backstory and not enough lightfooted story-telling. Create characters, have them drive the story, and all those wonderful underpinnings will emerge.

    Nice theory, yah. Some of us do best to keep a job.

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